Can sports facility transform Lilburn?

Lilburn is a town in desperation. With no movie theaters, sporting goods stores, fine dining or hotels, many residents drive out of the city just to buy shoes or grab a bite to eat.

Last week, Uncle Dave Pizza went out of business. Last month, Starbucks coffee left its U.S. 29 location. Since last year, Lilburn has seen about 100 businesses depart or simply close up shop, the city planning department said.

“I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture, but it’s going to take something very big to reverse the trend,” City Councilman Eddie Price said.

City leaders believe they have found that something: a massive baseball, softball and soccer venue — a nearly $20 million venture — they hope will transform their sleepy enclave of 11,500 into a thriving destination for businesses and event-goers.

The City Council is entertaining a license fee agreement with Big League Dreams Sports Parks, a national operator of youth and adult sports facilities, for a 40-acre complex at U.S. 29 and Indian Trail Road. The facility would play host to Little League baseball and adult softball tournaments, camps, concerts and even weddings.

The council discussed the agreement — and possible funding options — in a work session Tuesday night, with a vote on the agreement set for Sept. 13. Public hearings could start in October, as the city conducts economic impact and feasibility studies and weighs payment options. One of those options could include a tax increase.

“For this little city to undertake this is going to be huge,” City Manager Bill Johnsa said. “It’ll make Lilburn a destination instead of a pass-through.”

But Kennesaw State University sports economist J.C. Bradbury said there is no evidence that publicly funded facilities generate any kind of economic windfall.

“The economic development that we so often hear about never materializes. If you don’t believe me, just go down to Turner Field,” Bradbury said. “These buildings are built, they’re not successful and taxpayers are stuck with the bill.”

Bradbury points to the stadium for the Gwinnett Braves as a venture he believes hasn’t lived up to expectations. Initially slated to cost $45 million, the price quickly ballooned to $64 million, drawing critics as the county suffered budget cuts, layoffs and tax increases.

Revenue bonds possible

Lilburn, though, believes this park could be a home run and points to the success of similar venues in Mansfield, Texas, and Manteca, Calif.

The license fee agreement, for which Lilburn would put up $450,000 in recreation SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) funds, would mobilize plans to finance the city-owned park. The city has six months to two years to back out of the deal. Though plans are still preliminary, to pay the $15 million to $20 million price tag, the city has discussed issuing revenue bonds, which would be a first for the 100-year-old town.

Revenue bonds are used to build facilities such as stadiums and utilities, and the fees and taxes on the facilities ultimately pay off the debt. If Lilburn goes this route, Johnsa said, the revenue to retire the bonds could come from excise taxes, sales and use taxes, revenue sharing with Big League Dreams and, possibly, increased property taxes.

Getting approved for the bonds could pose challenges for a city that has pulled money out of its reserves the past few years to balance its $5.7 million budget and has a cap on its property tax rate. Lilburn’s millage rate is 4.26, and it is capped at 5.0 for maintenance and operations. That cap could go above 5.0 for bond debt.

“In a community, especially a city, we’re trying to keep the commercial tax base vibrant to offset taxes for residential, and that’s not been happening,” Mayor Diana Preston said. “It very well may be that we have to increase taxes, at least temporarily, but we may have to do that anyway.”

That troubles 17-year Lilburn resident Sheryl Penny.

“If Lilburn’s losing revenue, and I know they are, I don’t think they always need to look at the taxpayers footing the bill to pay for everything,” Penny said.

Teresa Czyz, an eight-year resident, believes the venture is a good idea, though she notes that the “pay aspect is tough.”

“Lilburn is a small town, made up of mostly residents and not businesses,” Czyz said. “If you don’t have something driving businesses, as a resident your taxes are going to go up anyway. I see this as a way to pump money into something that in the future will keep my taxes down.”

A need to perk things up

By attracting sports enthusiasts, city leaders see the park as the ultimate boost to economic development. For years, the city off I-85 has foundered amid an aging infrastructure, transient population and outdated alcohol and sign laws that gave Lilburn a reputation as old-fashioned, officials said.

To turn things around, the city has updated those laws to attract restaurants and wine shops and stimulate the local economy. Little has worked, officials have said.

“This [park] is not just a shot in the arm. This is a cure for a much worse disease,” said Doug Stacks, the city’s director of planning and economic development. “It really has the potential to put Lilburn on the map.”

The park would feature restaurants, batting cages and an indoor soccer arena, but its main attraction would be six fields built as scaled-down replicas of famous ballparks. Think New York’s Yankee Stadium, Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

Big League Dreams’ role

The proposed site for the facility is home to a county water sewer treatment plant that’s going offline. City leaders say they have a “gentleman’s agreement” with Gwinnett County in which the county would deed the property to Lilburn, though the property itself would undergo its own feasibility and environmental studies.

Once the park is built, California-based Big League Dreams would assume costs for maintenance, operations, marketing and tournament scheduling. It would hire up to 80 full- and part-time employees and book tournaments 52 weeks a year, company consultant Pat Kight said. That could attract 300,000 to 400,000 visitors to Lilburn each year, he said.

To offset the debt for the park, the city would enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with Big League Dreams. That could pour $200,000 to $500,000 a year into city coffers, Kight said.

In 2009, the Big League Dreams complex in Manteca surpassed $2.1 million in revenues plus 430,705 in paid attendance, said Karen McLaughlin, assistant city manager for the northern California city of 68,000. Manteca’s share: $494,284.70, McLaughlin said.

The city of Mansfield opened a park in March 2008. Since then, the Texas city of 58,000 has gone from one hotel to seven and added a smattering of chain restaurants, said Shelly Lanners, the city’s director of community services. Lilburn officials plan to visit the city this month to survey the venue.

The first Big League Dreams park opened in 1998 in Cathedral City, Calif. Nine more have popped up in California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas. Lilburn’s park would be the first in Georgia.

Lilburn resident Heather Koffman has two kids, ages 13 and 10, who play baseball, and she lives in a subdivision bordering the proposed site.

“As excited as I would be for a new ballpark for the fun, the most important factor is that it could potentially be an economic generator,” Koffman said. “We have a lot of blight in Lilburn. We need something that will make a positive change.”